‘Assassins’ at Silver Spring Stage shocks and entertains

History buffs will enjoy this musical look at the lives and twisted thinking of notorious American presidential assassins.

Who wants to see the backstory of infamous American presidential assassins? If you are fascinated by history, perhaps. If you have a macabre sense of humor, possibly. If you love catchy tunes and sharp choreography, definitely. Assassins by Stephen Sondheim (Academy, Tony, and Grammy winner) and John Weidman is a journey into the minds of the disturbed — set to music. This show, directed by Fred Zirm, is Silver Spring Stage’s first musical in decades.

Assassins often balanced on that thin line between laughs and groans. Based on an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr., Sondheim’s somewhat funny and dark musical tells the stories of unhinged people who tried to kill U.S. presidents, whether they succeeded or not. This musical looks at what drove these assassins down their dark paths. The music in the show includes popular songs from different time periods and patriotic American tunes. It’s dark, it’s humorous, and it is sometimes fun.

Michael McGovern, Lee Michele Rosenthal, Charlie Retzlaff, and Hunter Curry in ‘Assassins.’ Photo by Nickolas Cummings.

As Zirm put it: “Assassins can serve as a cautionary tale, warning people at either end of the political spectrum who call for violence that they should, to echo another Sondheim show, be ‘careful the wish they make’ — a timely lesson for these polarized times.”

Each of the historical assassins had a song or participated in songs that told their stories. Alden Michels and Mel Gumina as John Hinkley and “Squeaky” Fromme sang a dynamite duet of “Unworthy of Your Love.” Michels, who won a 2019 WATCH award for Best Actor in a Musical, also served as one of the music directors, along with Jenni McGinnis.

The country-and-western sounding “The Ballad of Booth” was performed by the Balladeer (Maureen Freshour), John Wilkes Booth (Hunter Curry), and David Herold (Aram Matagi). Freshour impressed with her faux guitar playing.

Surprisingly, this musical had great monologues and superb acting among the songs. Bill Bodie was mesmerizing as would-be President Nixon assassin Samuel Byck, who planned to fly a plane into the White House in 1974. His monologue, which had a strong emotional arc, focused on the futility of finding a president who does everything you’d want him to do. Bodie recently acted in Cymbeline, Love’s Labor Lost, and Uncle Vanya.

I loved the acting clinic put on by Curry, as Booth, and Preston Meche II, as Lee Harvey Oswald. Their scene took place in the infamous Texas School Book Depository. In an anachronistic meeting, Booth exhorted Oswald to do the unthinkable. Meche, who also played President Ford, was most recently seen in Singin’ in the Rain at The Arlington Players.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Hunter Curry and Aram Matagi; Bill Bodie, Ian Swank, and Hunter Curry; Alden Michels and Mel Gumina; Doug Richesson, Marissa Michaels, and Aram Matagi, in ‘Assassins.’ Photos by Nickolas Cummings.

There were many other good performances in this show. Michael McCarthy played the pathetic, sickly, and mentally ill Giuseppe Zangara, who attempted to assassinate FDR in 1933. McCarthy, along with the ensemble, wonderfully performed “How I Saved Roosevelt.”

Charlie Retzlaff played Charles J. Guiteau, who assassinated President James A. Garfield. Strangely, Guiteau wanted Garfield to appoint him to be the ambassador to France. I liked the work put in by Doug Richesson, who played Garfield and many other roles in the ensemble.

Lee Michele Rosenthal played Sara Jane Moore, who, along with Fromme, tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford. Marissa Michaels channeled early 20th-century anarchist Emma Goldman. She had a wonderful scene with Michael McGovern, who played Leon Czolgosz.

McGovern played Czolgosz as a lost and awkward soul. McGovern excelled in the tunes “Gun Song” and “Another National Anthem.” Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley in 1901.

Ian Swank played a carnival barker–type character named the Proprietor. At the top of the show, he sang “Everybody’s Got the Right” along with the various assassins in the show. I also liked his singing in “Another National Anthem” and “Something Just Broke.”

Caroline Adams and Morgan Fuller rounded out the ensemble. Janaki Katz played Moore’s son.

The production team was top-notch. Armorer Brian Dettling supplied “safe, nonfunctional” replica pistols. Sandhya K. Kidd impressed with the properties such as a Tab soda prop. Bill Brown’s set design featured sepia and red tones and evoked a carnival. Helen Aberger made the intimate scene touching.

Assassins is a strange musical indeed. Despite or perhaps because of its subject matter, the musical tunes and acting pull you into a historical journey. Assassins is a musical for students of history and the stage.

Running Time: Approximately two hours with a 15-minute intermission.

Assassins plays through June 23, 2024 (Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm), at Silver Spring Stage, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. Purchase tickets (starting at $23.2 including fees) at the door or online. For more information call (301) 593-6036, visit the website, or email [email protected].

COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged but not required.

By Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman

Proprietor: Ian Swank
Balladeer: Maureen Freshour
John Wilkes Booth: Hunter Curry
Charles Guiteau: Charlie Retzlaff
Leon Czolgosz: Michael McGovern
Giuseppe Zangara: Michael McCarthy
Samuel Byck: Bill Bodie
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme: Mel Gumina
Sara Jane Moore: Lee Rosenthal
John Hinckley: Alden Michels
Male ensemble/Lee Harvey Oswald/President Ford: Preston Meche
Female ensemble/Emma Goldman: Marissa Michaels
Male ensemble/David Herold: Aram Matagi
Male ensemble/President Garfield: Doug Richesson
Female ensemble/Secret Service: Caroline Adams
Boy: Janaki Katz

Director: Fred Zirm
Music Director: Jenni McGinnis
Choreographer: Lisa Singleton
Set Dressing and Properties: Sandhya K. Kidd
Set Dressing and Properties Assistant: Nancy Carlin
Armorer: Brian Dettling
Set and Painting Designer: Bill Brown
Costume, Hair and Make-up Designer: Jennifer Morrissey
Intimacy Choreographer: Helen Aberger
Sound Designer: Sarah Katz
Lighting Designer and Projections: Steve Deming


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here